…The work environment will likely change as well. Many employers have seen that work from home arrangements can be successful, and I believe we’ll see a lot more companies that are open to flexible work arrangements. I think there will also be more opportunities for employees to work remotely and take advantage of opportunities and advance without having to relocate their families.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place. As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sondra Radcliffe.
Sondra has had a successful career as an attorney at an Am Law 100 firm, as in-house counsel for a Fortune 50 company and as a business executive. Sondra Radcliffe is currently General Manager of the Oxygen & PSU business at Collins Aerospace where she has full strategic, operational, and P&L responsibility and leads a global team of roughly 700 engineering, manufacturing, project management and production employees located in the United States, Germany, India and the Philippines. Sondra is also a busy mom of four children.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Sure, I started my professional career working in the beverage industry while I completed my undergraduate and law degrees at night. I was fortunate to move into different roles with the company during that time and got exposure to finance and accounting, sales, strategy, operations and supply chain. I really enjoyed the variety so when I started practicing law I looked for opportunities that would give me the same kind of exposure to different practice areas. I quickly found myself working on a variety of class action cases where I could leverage my knowledge of class-action processes and procedures while still getting to work on a variety of substantive matters like mergers and acquisitions, product liability, employment claims, unfair/unlawful business practices, etc.
After a few years of practicing at a firm, I decided to go in house. I joined Raytheon Technologies (formerly United Technologies) in 2013 and continued to pursue roles that would give me a broad understanding of the business, first moving into roles of increasing responsibility within the legal group and then eventually exiting the legal group to lead the Oxygen & PSU business. I am naturally curious, passionate about continuously learning and don’t shy away from hard things so I’ve generally been able to position myself to take advantage of opportunities when they come along and it’s been a great ride so far.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
After I had been with the company for about a year, the General Counsel for the Interiors business unit retired and I was offered the opportunity to relocate to Phoenix and take that role. In the months that followed my relocation, I traveled to some of our sites to try to learn more about our products and was offered the opportunity to witness an ejection seat sled test. In these tests, an ejection seat is mounted into an aircraft frame or “sled” then pushed down a 12,000-foot metal track by three “pusher sleds” powered by rocket motors which can go faster than the speed of sound. The test lasts about 17 seconds from rocket initiation to the ejection landing and the test is captured by 20+ high-speed digital cameras that can capture as many as 1,000 frames per second so that engineers can later review every detail of the test and the ejection.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Absolutely! Raytheon Technologies is home to some of the brightest minds in the aerospace industry. I’m so excited about all of the innovative technologies our group is working on from projects related to reducing the risk and opportunity for COVID transmission on airplanes to quickly pivoting our operations to produce hospital gowns and face masks for frontline workers treating COVID patients.
We’re also working on several projects for autonomous travel and technology that will make air travel more intelligent, more electric and more connected. Our teams are constantly looking at how to best use technology and autonomous solutions to enhance safety in both commercial and defense applications. In addition to utilizing the best minds in the industry to create world-class products for today, Raytheon Technologies is also investing in the minds of tomorrow by supporting multiple STEM programs like the New York Academy of Sciences’ Innovation Challenge where students from around the world are mentored by our engineers in a competition to design the aircraft of the future and we’re partnering with Girls Who Code to empower more girls to pursue STEM-related roles.
The job is personal for me and the rest of our employees. The products we design and manufacture for commercial aircraft protect each one of us and our family members when we travel. For example, the Oxygen & PSU business designs and manufactures life-saving and life-sustaining products for commercial aircraft as well as the men and women in our armed forces. I shared this video with my team recently at our offsite: https://youtu.be/IKuTx3MUIl8. The work we do every day saves lives and we’re driven to constantly innovate to continue to advance these technologies.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve been fortunate to have some great mentors, advocates and sponsors over the course of my career. Early in my career when I worked for a beverage distributor the VP of Sales recognized my potential and offered me a role in his organization. I was working during the day and going to law school at night at the time so I think I asked him if he was crazy for suggesting I should consider the role, but he quickly reassured me that he was confident in my ability to do the job and we could work around my class schedule. I would never have even applied for the role without his support, but with his encouragement, I accepted the role and learned so much. In fact, it was in that role that I learned many of the foundational principles that are a key part of my leadership philosophy today. I remember a conversation Mark and I had when we first starting working together. He mentioned that the work I was doing was not a strength for him but that was precisely why he had hired me. He hired people who had strengths in different areas and the team benefited from the collective strength of each of the individual parts.
Later in my career while I was in-house counsel, some of my business customers recognized my potential as a business leader and encouraged me to transition into a P&L role. My business unit president and one of our female general managers advocated for me and actively worked on my behalf to make that happen. They have also been invaluable mentors as I have transitioned out of the legal group and into a P&L role. Henry’s leadership has also helped shape who I am as a leader. For example, he taught me the importance of clearly communicating the organization’s mission, vision and values as these should serve as a guidepost to your employees when you’re not around. In global business, there are going to be people making decisions that affect your career and your business while you’re sleeping. You want to ensure that those decisions align with your company’s mission, vision and values.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?
My husband is a first responder and doesn’t have the ability to work from home like I do so when our children’s schools transitioned to online learning the bulk of overseeing that activity fell to me. Our older children (in middle school and high school) were already used to using digital tools such as Google Classroom and Google Meet so they were able to adapt quickly, but the elementary school was not using those tools pre-COVID so they simply sent out a weekly communication to the parents with the standard to be taught and digital and non-digital learning activity for the children to do to practice the skill. The burden fell entirely to the parents to instruct and then submit evidence to the teacher that the child had done the required work. The biggest challenges I encountered have been (1) having to quickly learn Common Core teaching methods since the way children learn today is different than how many parents were taught (2) finding a schedule that would allow me to meet the demands of work and home (3) work/life balance is more difficult and I find I’m working more hours in the COVID environment to get the same amount of work done, and (4) prioritizing time for exercise, meditation, “me time” and 1:1 time with my husband.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Enlist help. It’s like that show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” where you can phone a friend for help. I’ve learned to share the load and tag in additional resources where I can. My husband manages the homeschooling and household management on Thursdays when he’s off so I can focus exclusively on work. I try to schedule my most important calls and the work that requires intense focus for Thursday or early in the morning before my children are awake. My neighbor and I also take turns hosting the other’s children at our house so the other can get a few hours of quiet time and I enlist the help of my mom, who is a former teacher, to assist with my children’s schooling. Although she doesn’t live nearby, a Facetime call now and then has helped to prevent a lot of frustration for both me and my children. There have been times when I’ve struggled to teach or explain something in a way that they understand because the way they are being taught today is so different from how I learned. When that happens we usually call a timeout and call grandma. COVID has also forced us to get a lot more intentional about planning and scheduling. I set aside time for exercise early in the morning while my children are still sleeping and we have kept to the same bedtime schedule as we did during the regular school year so that my husband and I can have some time together in the evenings after my children go to bed.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
I’ve always been pretty good at time management but I’ve had to really step up my game and be very intentional about how I spend my time since COVID. There are a couple of practices I’ve found that really make a difference for our family. First, I set aside time each morning to write down three things that I want to accomplish during the day. This helps keep me focused on what I need to get done and feel like I accomplished something at the end of the day. Second, we try to keep to a predictable schedule. This has been really helpful for our youngest child who was used to the structure of the school day. When we first transitioned to homeschooling I tried to structure her learning around my calls and meetings which resulted in a different schedule each day. This really threw her off so we pivoted and created a predictable schedule which we write out on the fridge each week. Now the children know what they are expected to do, in what order and they know when I’m on calls and when I am available to help them. Third, I utilize time-blocking to help me make the most of my time. I group all of my meetings into a block of a few hours. I also set aside dedicated time to help my children with their school work and another block of time to check and respond to voicemails and emails. Finally, I keep a pad of paper on my desk to capture all the random thoughts and miscellaneous to-do items that come up during the day. I capture them on my brain dump list and because I’ve written them down I know I can come back to them later. Later that day or early the next day I review the brain dump list and can prioritize those items in subsequent days’ focus lists. I wrote about some of the tips I’ve found helpful for managing work from home and homeschooling in a LinkedIn article: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/taming-chaos-10-tips-help-you-navigate-wfh-leading-team-radcliffe/
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?
Exercise and time outside are critical for us. It allows us to keep our sanity while still social distancing. During the week I try to get outside each morning for a walk on the local trails or in the neighborhood. This gives me time alone to think, strategize and plan. On the weekends we try to get outside and do things as a family. We’ve taken short day tips to Sedona and Flagstaff for hikes and a picnic, gone horseback riding, spent time at the park near our house playing ball with our children, spent weekends barbequing and playing in our pool, and planned weekends for kayaking or tubing down the river.
We’ve also gotten creative about entertainment. My daughter created a home movie theater for us and we’ve pivoted our dinner and a movie dates to drive-through Chick-fil-A and a drive-in movie. Although the celebrations are different we still try to celebrate milestone events like birthdays and even our son’s high school graduation in creative ways to maintain some sense of normalcy.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
First, it’s caused us to slow down and allowed us to reconnect with one another. Many parents I know were living at a frenzied pace pre-COVID rushing from work to sports practices then hurrying home to get dinner on the table while simultaneously trying to help them with their homework before falling into bed exhausted. We’ve been there ourselves; with four children at three schools and two parents who both work outside the home we’ve lived the frenzied life. When COVID started to shut down activities I was coming off of a busy month of travel and our daughter’s track season was just starting which meant nearly every Saturday for the next 2.5 months would be spent at track meets (which last nearly all day). We were honestly a little relieved when our travel and activities were canceled and grateful to have some breathing room again. No travel, no sports, no activities outside the home. As things start to reopen post-COVID I think many of us will approach things more cautiously and be more discerning about the activities that we add back into our calendars.
Second, the work environment will likely change as well. Many employers have seen that work from home arrangements can be successful, and I believe we’ll see a lot more companies that are open to flexible work arrangements. I think there will also be more opportunities for employees to work remotely and take advantage of opportunities and advance without having to relocate their families.
Third, the world appears to have gotten a little smaller in all of this as well. We’ve learned that we can effectively bring New York musical theater and ballet into our homes. Ballet companies, fitness and yoga studios have pivoted to offer classes online. We can order wine and do a wine tasting with a sommelier or take a baking class with a pastry chef in our own kitchen. We can tour the Louvre, the Vatican, the National Gallery of Art, the Met, the British Museum and many more without having to leave our homes. We’ve seen a lot of creativity as businesses pivoted, and I think many companies are challenging the traditional model and finding new ways to reach the public.
My fourth reason to be hopeful during COVID is that we’ve developed a greater appreciation for the outdoors and the simple life. Until this year my children have never known the kind of summer I enjoyed as a child. Because my husband and I have always worked outside the home we’ve relied on summer camps, sports and daycare during the summer. This summer was different, however; our children got to stay home all summer. They swam, built forts, made art projects and lounged lazily in front of the TV. We also camped, played soccer together and tossed a Frisbee. We even got a puppy this summer because, well, we’re actually home and can take the time to train it. Both of our youngest children have separately remarked that this was the best summer ever.
Finally, we’ve regained a community mindset. In the business of life many of us had our heads down in our devices barely taking notice of the members of our community except perhaps to wave and smile as we passed each other coming and going. Now that we’ve slowed down and in many cases are homebound we’ve reconnected and regained a community mindset, taking care of one another and looking out for each other. When COVID started to gain serious attention there was a run on toilet paper and food at many stores. Thankfully we had stocked up a few weeks before and since we have a large family we buy in bulk already. We could not find toilet paper at the store for three months. Toward the end of month 2 I commented to a friend during our church’s small group zoom call one week that we had not seen toilet paper on the shelf for months and were starting to run low and the following day her mother called asking if she could drop some off for us. As a senior citizen, she had early access to the stores and had been able to get toilet paper and had enough to share. Our neighbors offered us flour and baking supplies to make bread when we couldn’t find any at the store. We bought bottled water and supplies for the elderly and others did the same for us. Through the pain of COVID we’ve learned to look out for our neighbors again and take care of people in our neighborhoods and communities again. Now instead of “how are you”, we often hear “how can I help you” and “do you need anything”. This is something I hope we hold onto long after COVID has passed.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
First and foremost, if someone is feeling anxious, I usually encourage them to limit the amount of news they are consuming and limit their time on social media. I do a quick review of print media each day to stay informed and keep track of what’s going on in the world and subscribe to news summary services like Skimm to stay informed but otherwise limit the amount of news my family is consuming as most of it is very negative right now.
I also recommend that people do something each day that brings them joy. For me this is my morning walk and provides the added benefit of getting my blood pumping and my muscles moving. Exercise lowers stress hormones such as cortisol and helps keep your body strong to ward off illness
Human connection is also important. Find fun ways to connect. I’ve heard so many great stories of people coming up with creative ways to stay connected. Neighbors gathering outside in their own yard for Friday night happy hours with other neighbors; virtual dinners and happy hours, virtual scavenger hunts, etc.
Create or maintain family traditions. Pre-COVID we would often go out for tacos on Tuesday nights. We wanted to maintain a sense of normalcy for our children during COVID so we maintained this tradition but pivoted to takeout when the stay home orders started. Now, we order takeout from one of our local taco shops and bring it home for the family to enjoy together.
Help someone else. There are scientific studies associated with increased happiness and decreased anxiety and stress when we help someone else. Even the smallest gesture can have a big impact. My brother and his wife started sending pen pal letters to our girls during COVID. This brought them such joy and they quickly wrote back then checked the mail each day for the next letter. I’ve seen similar requests from senior living communities asking people to start a pen pal relationship with their residents. Help others and you will also help yourself.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Become so confident in who you are that no one’s opinion, rejection, or behavior can rock you.” ~Unknown
There are plenty of people out there that have an opinion about what we can accomplish but that doesn’t mean that it’s worth listening to. There have been plenty of people who have tried to tell me I can’t do something.
- I was told I wouldn’t get a job at a big law firm and I should set my sights on a boutique firm because I worked full-time during law school and could not do the traditional on-campus interviews and internships that my peers used to line up jobs for after graduation, but I worked hard, leveraged my network and got a job at an Am Law100 firm.
- I was told I wouldn’t pass the bar exam because I had my daughter 2 weeks after I graduated law school and 6 weeks before the bar exam but I studied hard, got notes for the missed prep classes from my peers and passed it on my first attempt.
- I was told I wouldn’t be able to go in-house without (1) relocating to another state and (2) at least 10 years of practice…but I did. Within probably 6 months being told that I managed to get an in-house position with a Fortune 50 company and I didn’t have to relocate.
If I had listened to other people’s limitations I would not be where I am today. You have to have confidence in yourself and your abilities even when other’s don’t.
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Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!